In the hot and arid Middle East, clean water is liquid gold. Faced with limited rainfall and a grueling climate, Israel has increasingly relied on seawater since it built its first desalination plant in Eilat in the 1960s. Today, about 60 percent of Israel’s domestic water demand is met through desalination – the process by which salt and other impurities are removed from seawater to produce potable water.
Written by Mr. Kirk D’Souza, originally published on NoCamels
“We used to have enough water from the Sea of Galilee and underground aquifers. But in the 1990s, we felt the water scarcity more and more,” Tomer Efrat, process engineering manager at Israel Desalination Enterprises (IDE) Technologies, tells NoCamels. “Every television and radio newscast concluded with an update on the water level in the Sea of Galilee.”
Fortunately, desalination – along with drip irrigation, water recycling and sustainable water conservation policies – has increased Israel’s water supply and amazingly, transformed its water shortage into a water surplus. In fact, Israel is the only country where the desert is shrinking thanks to the abundance of water for agriculture. “Today, no one in Israel experiences water scarcity,” Efrat says.
3 million cubic meters of potable water daily
Israel has proven itself as a world leader in desalination after decades of research and entrepreneurship. For example, reverse osmosis – the technique by which seawater is forced through ultra-fine membranes that filter out larger salt molecules – was pioneered by Israeli scientist Sidney Loeb in the 1960s at Ben-Gurion University (BGU), which is located in the Negev, Israel’s largest desert.
Much credit belongs to IDE Technologies, which has built three desalination plants in Sorek, Ashkelon and Hadera, along Israel’s coastline. The internationally renowned company was ranked the world’s 19th smartest company in 2016 by MIT Technology Review, and is sought by countries across the globe. According to IDE Technologies, the company’s 400 plants in 40 countries (which it has built over four decades) provide 3 million cubic meters of potable water around the world daily.
The crown jewel of Israeli water engineering
When visiting IDE’s Sorek facility, it is easy to see why this desalination plant – the largest in the world – is lauded as the crown jewel of Israeli water engineering. This intricate system of mammoth pumps, pipes and filters draws seawater from the Mediterranean Sea to produce enough clean water for the 1.5 million people in the areas around it (roughly 20 percent of Israel’s household consumption).
Standing at the heart of the plant are two large halls containing hundreds of vessels hanging vertically like laboratory test-tubes. This is where the magic of reverse osmosis happens. The busy hum of mega pumps dominates the halls as water is pushed through the plant’s 16,000 desalination membranes. The filtered water undergoes further treatment before visitors can drink a glass of freshly desalted water.
The environmental cost of desalination
With water scarcity affecting more than 40 percent of the global population, according to the UN, there is clearly an urgent need for large-scale solutions like desalination. But critics decry the high cost and high energy consumption of desalination, which can have a negative impact on the environment and on our oceans.
Efrat claims that IDE has taken many steps to reduce the cost and environmental footprint of its plants. For example, the company reduces energy consumption not only by reusing waste heat, but also by keeping its reverse osmosis membranes clean, so that less pressure is needed to push the water through the membranes. “IDE is also the only desalination company that offers chemical-free desalination, which means there is minimal impact on the environment,” he says.
The Middle East
Israel’s geopolitical situation is as heated as its climate. But leaders in the Israeli water industry believe that the country’s desalination technology could be extended as an olive branch to its neighbors.
One ambitious endeavor is the Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project. This is a joint proposal by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority to pipe water from the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea (in the south of Jordan), clean it in a desalination plant in Jordan, and then use the brine discharge to replenish the shrinking Dead Sea, which is shared by Israel and Jordan. The resulting potable water will be shared by Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians.
The first phase of this $10 billion project is expected to begin in 2018 and end in 2020. For this first phase, the Jordanian government has shortlisted 20 companies from China, France, Singapore, Canada, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Spain to construct the desalination plant in Jordan and the brine delivery system that will lead to the Dead Sea.
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